Mark Madden: Easy to think Penguins’ run is over |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Easy to think Penguins’ run is over

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Mike Sullivan of the Penguins handles bench duties against the New York Islanders in Game Two of the Eastern Conference first round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. The Islanders defeated the Penguins, 3-1.

The Chicago Blackhawks won Stanley Cups in 2010, ’13 and ’15.

They lost in the first round of the playoffs in ’16 and ’17, and then missed the postseason in ’18 and this year.

The Los Angeles Kings won Stanley Cups in 2012 and ’14.

They did not qualify for the postseason in ’15, ’17 and this year, and were eliminated in the first round in ’16 and ’18.

Neither the Blackhawks nor the Kings have won a playoff series since the last time they won a championship. That’s just like the Pirates, give or take 30-plus years.

Have the Penguins hit that same wall? Have they reached their expiration date?

It’s easy to think that’s possible, even probable. The salary cap is designed to prevent dynasties of more than short length. Stars stay with their teams, but fade. Key lesser components get hikes in pay elsewhere.

Much of the Penguins’ core is on the wrong side of 30: Patric Hornqvist and Evgeni Malkin are 32. Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang are 31. The team’s preference of playing a fast game is less advisable as it ages. That’s evident now.

If the future is to be brighter, the roster or style must be adjusted. Maybe both.

In the meantime, the present isn’t exactly glowing.

The Islanders are the antithesis of the Penguins. Their best player, John Tavares, went to Toronto via free agency this past offseason. Yet the Islanders finished with 23 more points than last year and three more points than Toronto, which had five less points than last year despite adding Tavares and having more talent than the Islanders.

The Islanders have no players who strongly prefer playing a certain style, or pick their linemates. They don’t need to indulge egos. Barry Trotz took over as Islanders coach after winning a Stanley Cup with Washington last season, and his no-name group provided him a blank canvas.

Trotz used that canvas to color inside the lines. The Islanders went from conceding the most goals in the NHL to allowing the fewest.

The Penguins prefer to be more abstract. That’s OK unless being sloppy, stubborn and slower than the opposition reduces you to finger-painting.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. The Penguins finished three points behind the Islanders. The teams split the season series. The Islanders are faster and look hungrier. The Penguins are frustrated, and look like they just want it to be over.

There are no adjustments to be made for Game 4. There’s no magic bullet. The Penguins are being outskated and outplayed. The stars are invisible. The Penguins have led for 197 seconds out of a possible 10,800. They can’t build or maintain momentum.

The Penguins have to play unimaginably better, and the Islanders must fade. Neither seems likely. A combination of both seems downright far-fetched.

The Penguins will keep trying to jam their style down the throats of an Islanders team equipped to stop it. The Penguins won’t succeed in that attempt, let alone four straight times.

The big story isn’t the Penguins failing (although they are). It’s the Islanders succeeding. This series isn’t close on any level. Nothing is fluky about it. It’s a slaughter.

Game 2 on Long Island provided a microcosm of the Penguins’ frustration.

When the game ended with the Islanders winning, 3-1, the Penguins’ stars initiated a mini-brawl reminiscent of an entitled brat throwing a tantrum after his woobie got yanked away. It brought back memories of melting down against Philadelphia is the 2012 playoffs. It was a bad look and did not bode well moving forward.

The Penguins aren’t doing the little things, or the big things. They are too idealistic, unwilling to win on any terms but their own. There’s no Plan B.

Mike Sullivan can’t be faulted for that, because the preferred method has worked well during his coaching tenure in Pittsburgh. But if the Penguins get bounced in the first round, new approaches should be considered and applied. If they’re not, Sullivan will be turning into Dan Bylsma, one of his predecessors.

Or perhaps it’s just the Penguins’ time to fizzle.

The citizens shouldn’t be angry. The Penguins have made the playoffs 13 straight years. They’ve won three Stanley Cups in that stretch, made another final and played in another conference final. That’s one heck of a run.

But maybe that run is over.

To keep it going, the Penguins must make roster adjustments the fans won’t like, and style adjustments the players won’t like. Watch this space.

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